Frank Furedi

Sociologist, commentator and author of Culture of Fear, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Paranoid Parenting, Therapy Culture, and On Tolerance: In Defence of Moral Independence.

Don’t wink at the nudge plan
The casual manner in which the advocates of nudge dismiss the right of people to behave in accordance with their intuition and instincts exposes their soft authoritarian ambitions.

A really bad idea is being imported into Australia. The NSW government has decided to spend precious tax dollars on buying into the behaviour management techniques dreamed up by the British government’s “nudge unit”. Why? Because the NSW government believes that the British policymakers are in the forefront of the “innovative” use of behaviour-change tactics. And it appears that the citizens of NSW really need to have their behaviour altered.

The objective of the nudge unit is to nudge people to change their behaviour, without the use of compulsion. At first sight some of the techniques used to manipulate people to change their behaviour appear benign. One such technique is to increase the rate of organ donation by forcing British drivers to state whether they want to be organ donors when they apply for a new or replacement licence. Another technique used by the nudge unit is sending out personalised text messages to encourage people to pay their outstanding fines. By targeting the individual’s sense of insecurity, advocates of the nudge method attempt to subject people to the kind of pressure that will alter their behaviour.

What’s really wrong with this toxic import from Britain is the threat it represents to democratic public life. The nudge unit operates on the assumption that attempting politically to convince the electorate of government policies is a pointless exercise. Instead of democratic debate and argument, it opts for subliminal psychological techniques and manipulation. These techniques are based on the ideas of American behavioural economist Richard Thaler, who believes that since people often fail to act rationally and in their own interests, they can only benefit from being nudged in the right direction by governments and experts.

Thaler and his acolytes in the nudge unit are convinced that their expertise entitles them to pronounce what is in people’s best interest. It is important to highlight the fact the aim of their psychological techniques is not simply to nudge people to act in accordance with a particular policy but to alter human behaviour. So nudging does not simply mean directing people on the right road: it also implies taking measures to thwart people from acting in ways not approved by those who know best.

The casual manner in which the advocates of nudge dismiss the right of people to behave in accordance with their intuition and instincts exposes their soft authoritarian ambitions.

The advocates of nudge reject the label of authoritarian and choose to describe their approach as “libertarian paternalism”. Of course, paternalistic behaviour is entirely appropriate in relation to young children. Most parents understand that there is little point in arguing with a toddler; it is far better simply to use child-rearing techniques that will encourage children to act in accordance with their parents’ desires. However, when similar techniques are used in relation to adults, then we really can glimpse the corrosion, and ultimately the corruption, of public life.

Paternalistic behaviour towards children is seen as acceptable because we presume that parents possess the maturity and knowledge that their infants lack. Parents are responsible for their children and therefore are expected to have some authority and control over their behaviour. Infants lack experience and, more important, they lack the capacity for autonomy and moral independence. But things are fundamentally different when it comes to the relationship between government and adults.

For a start, it is far from clear where behavioural economists, policymakers and politicians get the moral authority to manipulate people’s behaviour. Experience shows that experts do not always possess wisdom and that ordinary people have very little to learn from them.

Proponents of choice architecture often delude themselves into believing that their paternalism is libertarian and that their policies are neither authoritarian nor coercive. However, the objectives adopted by choice architects are far-reaching and resemble ambitions usually associated with totalitarian regimes. When Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg casually remarked that his government’s nudge unit “could change the way citizens think”, he spoke the language usually associated with a totalitarian propaganda agency.

Since when has it been a democratic government’s brief to wage an ideological crusade directed at altering its citizens’ thoughts? According to Clegg’s vision, governing is not so much about realising people’s aspirations as it is about changing these aspirations so that they correspond to the world view of choice architects.

So what does Chris Eccles, director-general of the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, mean when he says “we’re excited” by the import of “simple techniques based on the psychology of consumers to come up with some profound changes of behaviour”?

What he is excited about is the possibility of altering the public’s behaviour without having to win difficult political arguments.

Remoulding the way people think and act requires a significant erosion of their right to assent to, or reject, policies. This presupposes the elimination of a two-way discussion between citizens and their rulers. This was indeed the objective outlined in a British Cabinet Office paper, Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy, an approach that relied on citizens “not fully” realising “that their behaviour is being changed - or at least how it is being changed”.

Nudging is not some harmless technique dreamed up by policymakers. It assumes for the state the role of a therapist and relegates the public to the status of a patient. These policies promote the colonisation of private life as personal conduct becomes the target of officially endorsed behaviour-management techniques. If such policies flourish it will mean that individual behaviour will no longer be treated as a private matter by government.

It is not only private life that is at risk. Nudge policies aim to substitute expert-designed objectives for goals arrived at through democratic debate. Australia should beware of the potential of this toxic import to stultify public debate and political life.

Frank Furedi is the the author of Culture of Fear.


First published by The Australian, 5 October 2012